BATTLE OF THE SEXES

Do Apple’s software-quality problems signal management issues?

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A flurry of recent software accidents in iOS and OS X raises questions about Apple’s management of its relentless increase in research and development spending.

For the past six months or so, I’ve become increasingly concerned about the quality of Apple software. From the painful gestation of OS X 10.10 (Yosemite) with its damaged iWork apps, to the chaotic iOS 8 launch, iCloud glitches, and the trouble with Continuity, I’ve gotten a bad feeling about Apple’s software-quality management. “It Just Works,” the company’s pleasant-sounding motto, became an easy target, giving rise to jibes of “it just needs more work.”

I felt this was an appropriate Monday Note topic but kept procrastinating. Then the holiday break came, including time on a boat with worse than no Internet–meaning my connection was frustratingly unpredictable and slow when on.

Coming back to the Valley, I read Marco Arment’s Jan. 4 post titled Apple has lost the functional high ground:

“We don’t need major OS releases every year. We don’t need each OS release to have a huge list of new features. We need our computers, phones, and tablets to work well first so we can enjoy new features released at a healthy, gradual, sustainable pace.

I fear that Apple’s leadership doesn’t realize quite how badly and deeply their software flaws have damaged their reputation, because if they realized it, they’d make serious changes that don’t appear to be happening. Instead, the opposite appears to be happening: the pace of rapid updates on multiple product lines seems to be expanding and accelerating.”

(Unfortunately, this well-meaning, reasoned critique from a respected Apple developer became fodder for the usual click-baiters, leading Arment to regret that he wrote it. This is sad.)

Arment isn’t the only one lamenting Apple’s software quality. See Glenn Fleishman’s well-documented list of nontrivial issues, or Michael Tsai’s compilation of comments from developers and engineers, such as this one from Geoff Wozniak (no relation to Woz):

“At this point, my default position on Apple software in OS X has moved from ‘probably good’ to ‘probably not OK’. They seem more interested in pumping out quantity by way of more upgrades. It’s death by a thousand cuts, but it’s death nonetheless.”

I’m late to this discussion but I’d like to add a few detailed observations of my own, examples of questionable design decisions, poor implementation, and other “broken windows.” Boredom may ensue.

We’ll start with Apple’s Pages word processor. When it was introduced 10 years ago, I found it mostly pleasant, easy for my limited use, progressively improved over a succession of releases, with welcome features such as Google Search, Wikipedia, and Dictionary/Thesaurus integration.

Curiously, however, Pages did some things differently. Hyperlink creation, for example, was inconsistent with Apple Mail, TextEdit, and Microsoft Word conventions. With these “older” products, you select some text, press command-K (⌘-K), paste the URL of the desired destination, and you’re good to go:

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In the new Pages, no ⌘-K joy. You have to bring up the Inspector, paste the link in the URL field, and press Enter.

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It’s not overly complicated, but why abandon the simple ⌘-K convention used elsewhere on the Mac?

With each Pages update I hoped for a return to the ancient ways, and when Pages 5 came out in late 2013, I thought my prayers had been answered. I select some text, type ⌘-K, and up pops the link editor:

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I paste the target URL into the Link field, press Enter, and I’m done, right? I’ve just created a link to a MacWorld story.

But, no. If I go back to the link I just entered, I see this:

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The MacWorld URL I entered is gone, replaced by the “helpful” default, www.apple.com. I also try clicking on Go to Page; indeed, it takes me to www.apple.com.

This can’t be right…I click Edit and go through the process again, the intended link sticks this time. Out of fear of having stumbled on an unreproducible phantom quirk, I carefully step through the procedure several times from different angles.

If I tiptoe to the File menu and click Save after I’ve pasted the URL but without pressing Enter, the intended link stays; it’s not replaced by http://www.apple.com:

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However, this only works if I Tab into the Link field and paste my URL. If I double-click on the pre-filled www.apple.com, paste the URL, and Save from the File menu, the link is gone. (Again, I carefully reproduced the procedure.)

This is madness.

But it doesn’t stop there.

Befuddled users found they couldn’t send Pages 5 files through Gmail. It’s now fixed, as the What’s New in Pages screen proudly claims…

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…but how could such an obvious, non-esoteric bug escape Apple’s attention in the first place?

Then we have “deprecated” features. Gone are the convenient Writing Tools:

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Search with Google is still there, but it’s harder to find; a Look-Up function bundles the dictionary and wikipedia but, believe it or not, there’s no thesaurus. I also liked the search function in Pages 4.3:

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It’s gone in Pages 5. Admittedly, this might not be a big deal for most users, but it allowed me to have kremlinology fun with executive abuse of words such as “incredible” and other platitudinous phrases.

We know the official excuse for removing features: iOS compatibility. It’s a noble goal on paper, and it sounds good on stage and in Keynote slides, but iWork on iOS is far from a godsend. Creating even a moderately complex document on an iPad is an unpleasant, frustrating experience.

Even if we concede that iOS compatibility may mean some amount of “dumbing down” (and we’ll note that the MacWorld review was careful to call Pages 5 a different product rather than a mere update), why didn’t Apple catch more of the obvious bugs? I’d like to have a quiet on-on-one with the Pages product manager to hear his/her explanations for the state of the product.

I can’t leave Pages without a stop at the iCloud version. (Apple, probably taking a page from Google’s old playbook, labels all three iWork products “beta”.) I tried writing a Monday Note article in iCloud. Impossible, no links. If I turn to the version of Microsoft Word on their One Drive service…It Just Works:

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Imagine Microsoft running an ad campaign: I’m One Drive, You’re iCloud…

To be complete, Microsoft’s Office Online isn’t without its own quirks. It loves me so much it refuses to sign me out:

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We now turn to iTunes. Pages might not concern a majority of Mac users, but iTunes sure does, and it presents an even sorrier spectacle than Apple’s productivity apps.

A good product allows its users to build a mental model of what it does and how it does it. Paraphrasing computer scientist Alan Kay, the user forms a what/how idea at the product’s door, then walks in and finds an Ali Baba cave full of pleasant surprises. How this applies to iTunes is left to the reader. ITunes is a mess, an accumulation of debris and additions without a discernible backbone. I won’t go as far as the Silicon Valley wag who calls iTunes Apple’s Vista, but iTunes reflects poorly on a company that takes pride in the fit and finish of its products.

For example, this is what I see when I open iTunes on my Mac:

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If you squint, you’ll see the same Bach Orchestral Suites repeated six times, and Mozart’s Requiem four times. Entries in the playlist are duplicated for no apparent reason. And let’s not even try to make and manage folders to group playlists by artist or other criteria. Nor can I make sense of the presentation of TV Show episodes. On my Apple TV, iTunes sometimes shows episodes in natural order, but then reverses them for no reason.

No need to continue the litany, the One Cockroach Theory tells us there are many more under the sink. Such as, I can’t resist, iMessages inconsistencies between devices.

Of course, making bug lists is easier than finding solutions, particularly if we want to avoid “all you have to do” bromides. So, we’ll proceed with caution and look at some numbers.

  • In 2012, Apple revenue grew by 45% to $156.5 billion and R&D went up by 39% to $3.4 billion.
  • In 2013, revenue grew 9% to $171 billion but R&D went up 32% to $4.5 billion.
  • In 2014, revenue went up 7% to $183 billion while R&D grew 35% to $6 billion.

Such relentless increase in R&D spending isn’t “free.” It means hiring lots of people and starting many projects or, worse, piling more people onto existing ones. This results in management problems, less visibility over a larger number of teams and, vertically, more opaque layers, less ability to diagnose people problems.

Another consideration is priorities. The received wisdom is that Apple engineers hail from Lake Wobegon: They’re “all above average.” But in a fight for resources, where do you put your best soldiers, on iOS or OS X? On Pages or Mail?

Apple execs aren’t indifferent to the company’s software quality problems, and they’re not unaware of the management pitfalls in fixing them. Take Apple Mail: For several years, Apple Mail had been a painful, many times a day irritant. It consumed so much computing power that the Activity Monitor on my MacBook Pro sometimes showed a CPU usage number as high as 257%, with fans spinning loudly, and general mail operations getting mysteriously stuck. Messages would disappear from a mailbox and yet be found by Spotlight, the Mac’s internal Search engine.

A recent OS X update seems have fixed these problems. A better manager was put in charge, people decisions were finally made, and Apple Mail is now (almost) boringly normal, receiving, sending, deleting, and sorting junk without fuss.

Let’s just hope that the all-important iTunes development team gets the “cure” it deserves, and iWorks after that.

Last, there is the mixed bag of comparisons. One side of the coin is Apple’s numbers are splendid. The quarterly results that will be disclosed next week (Jan. 27) are likely to show strong iPhone 6 sales and a continuation of Mac progress. And despite my bug list, Apple software still compares favorably to Windows 8 and Android offerings.

The other view is that the quality lapses we observe are the beginning of a slide into satisfied mediocrity, into organizations and projects that “run themselves,” that are allowed to continue for political reasons without regard for the joy of customers.

I know what I hope for. I don’t expect perfection, I’ve lived inside several sausage factories and remember the smell. If Apple were to spend a year concentrating on solid fixes rather than releasing software that’s pushed out to fit a hardware schedule, that would show an ascent rather than a slide.

You can read more of Monday Note’s coverage of technology and media here.

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